Chile constitutional referendum vies with new foe: coronavirus, says former president

SANTIAGO, Oct 16 (Reuters) - A new constitution is a first step in fusing the “rupture” between Chileans and their government, according to former president Ricardo Lagos, but a ‘yes’ vote to overhaul the dictatorship-era magna carta next week will necessarily run up against the more urgent coronavirus crisis.

Lagos said Chile’s economy, long the envy of Latin America, had regressed a decade in the few months since March, when the pandemic struck. Economic reactivation, he told Reuters in an interview this week, was “the number one task ahead.”

“The most important thing now is reconciling the long term (process) that writing a constitution implies with the urgency of the coronavirus demands today,” Lagos said.

Chileans vote on Oct. 25 over whether to scrap the current constitution, drafted under the dictatorship of strongman Augusto Pinochet, and begin anew. The plebiscite emerged from mass protests over inequality in late 2019 that left more than 30 dead and billions of dollars in damages.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, Lagos said, a new constitution would take a year and a half to draft and enact. In the meantime, however, coronavirus and the problems it has wrought continue, while social protests have reignited in the days ahead of the anniversary of the 2019 demonstrations on Oct. 18.

“There may be expectations that a new constitution can solve many issues and that is not the case,” Lagos said, warning that strong “public policies” were the only way to deal with angst over pensions, corruption and inequality.

Writing a new constitution, he said, would nonetheless close a dark chapter of Chilean history, and represent “the beginning of the recovery of trust” in the state by its citizens.

Lagos, a socialist and president of Chile between 2000 and 2006, helped spearhead the opposition to Pinochet’s 1973-90 rule and usher in a return to democracy. He said he understood the anger and frustrations of Chileans, who have seen booming economic growth but feel their political institutions have not kept pace.

If the country can meet the dueling demands of qualming the coronavirus crisis in the short-term and writing a powerful, inclusive constitution in the long-term, their hopes could be met, he said.

“It is one thing to lower poverty and another thing to meet the demands of those who left poverty behind,” Lagos said. (Reporting by Natalia Ramos, writing by Dave Sherwood, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)